It's the last of the rural Southern California coast, a magnificent blend of beaches, bluffs and mountains. Extending from Goleta's newest subdivisions to Point Sal on the Santa Barbara-San Luis Obispo county line is the 50-mile Gaviota Coast.
Cows graze the grassy coastal plain, red-tail hawks ride the thermals above the Santa Ynez Mountains, dolphins swim and dive in the great blue Pacific. Only mighty waves thundering against deserted shores break the silence.
This silence, these mountains, these shores are in danger, threatened by a tidal wave of 21st century development. Greater Santa Barbara extends a dozen or so miles from downtown to the edge of Goleta up the coast, a rapidly growing area complete with big, boxy retail complexes, UC Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara Municipal Airport, a rapidly growing cluster of high-tech businesses known collectively as Silicon Beach and mushrooming subdivisions. If trends continue, the Gaviota Coast soon will become Greater Goleta.
Fortunately the Gaviota Coast has many friends and growing national recognition. Some conservationists, politicians, scientists and park experts say the Gaviota Coast ought to be preserved as Gaviota Coast National Seashore.
Protection of this coast as national parkland is the chief goal of the Gaviota Coast Conservancy, a group working to secure the cooperation of ranchers, oil companies and governmental land stewards. The group has compiled an impressive list of the area's natural and historical resources.
The Gaviota Coast was home to the native Chumash for several thousand years and to Spanish, Mexican and American settlements for several hundred. About 2,000 to 3,000 Chumash lived in 10 villages along the Gaviota Coast before the arrival of Europeans. One of these villages, located in Dos Pueblos Canyon, had more than 100 dwellings; experts believe it may have been the largest Chumash village in California.
Meteorologists say the Gaviota Coast is the place where the cool, moist climate of Northern California mingles with the drier, warmer climate of Southern California. This mixture of weather patterns creates unusual conditions that nurture biodiversity.
Plants and animals native to Southern or Northern California reach their respective geographic limits here. Rare species of coastal plants survive in the area's sandstone bluffs, canyons and grasslands. Biologists call this ecological meeting place one of the most impressive "biogeographic transition zones" on the continent.
The recreation potential of the Gaviota coastline has not gone unnoticed by the private sector. The 400-room Bacara Resort and Spa at Haskell's Beach, a few miles up the coast from the Goleta sprawl, is nearing completion.
Hikers will find that the area is accessible from several attractive locales. Drive and see for yourself what might become the West Coast's second national seashore after Marin County's Point Reyes.
Look at the map before you go because Gaviota's geography can be confusing. The coast, and the Santa Ynez Mountains behind it, extend east-west, opposite California's usual north-south orientation. Gaviota sunsets are magnificent, even if the sun does seem to set in the north.
A good place to begin an exploration of Gaviota is the 10.5 miles of coast between Refugio State Beach and Gaviota State Park. The two state parklands ($5 vehicle entry fee) have water, picnic areas, plenty of parking and good beach hiking in both directions.
Gaviota's trail system includes bluffs and coastal access, but the best hiking is on the beach. Hikers enjoy clear-day views of the four northern Channel Islands: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel. I'd suggest an itinerary with four stops.
Directions to starting point: From Santa Barbara, drive 22 miles up-coast (north) on U.S. 101 to Refugio State Beach, then 10 more miles to Gaviota State Park.
I strongly recommend that you start at Gaviota State Park's beach, then drive down-coast (U.S. 101 south) to other beaches. Legal left turns from northbound U.S. 101 are few and not for the fainthearted. The beaches also are marked with small signs that are easier to spot when driving south on the highway.
The hike: Start on Gaviota State Park's sand. Walk out on the historic fishing pier for great views.
Then drive south on U.S. 101 a few miles to San Onofre State Beach. Hike the steep, quarter-mile access trail down the bluffs to a half-mile of sandy beach.
For your third stop, drive down-coast a few more miles to Arroyo Hondo Vista Point. Savor the ocean and island views from the bluff or from a vintage highway bridge, which is closed to vehicles.
Drive four more miles south on U.S. 101 to your fourth stop, Refugio State Beach. Hike down-coast one mile to Corral beach, secluded cove, or two miles up-coast to Tajiguas Beach, with a cove that's even more secluded.
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Where: (Proposed) Gaviota Coast National Seashore
Distance: From Refugio State Beach to Tajiguas Beach is 2 miles one way; to Arroyo Hondo Vista Point is 4.5 miles one way; to San Onofre Beach is 7.5 miles one way; to Gaviota State Park is 10.5 miles one way.
Terrain: Nearly deserted beaches and bluffs.
Highlights: Southern California's only remaining rural coastline.
Degree of difficulty: Easy to moderate.
Precautions: Easiest and safest walking is at low tide (particularly during the winter).
For more information: Gaviota State Park and Refugio State Beach, Channel Coast District, California Department of Parks and Recreation, 1933 Cliff Drive, Santa Barbara, CA 93109; tel. (805) 899-1400 or Gaviota Coast Conservancy; tel. (805) 563-7976.